ARMY NEWS

Army’s Cold Weather Division Needs Innovative Kit to Survive, Fight

12/1/2023
By Stew Magnuson
Soldiers pose as opposition forces at the Yukon Training Area, Alaska.

Defense Dept. photo

The Army established the 11th Airborne Division in June 2022 at Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska to fight at high altitudes and in extreme cold weather.

How cold?

How about 65 degrees below zero Fahrenheit?

“I don’t think at 65 below you’re going to do anything other than to try to stay warm. And whoever can stay the warmest wins,” said Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commanding general of the division, and deputy commander, Alaskan Command.

“I don’t think you’re fighting,” he continued. “You’re fighting to stay alive,” he said at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.

The 11th Airborne Division, also known as the Arctic Angels, is headquartered at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. It had ceased operations in 1965 but was reestablished only a few months before the White House released the “National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” which highlighted the need for the nation to be engaged in the higher latitudes.

“The Arctic — home to more than four million people, extensive natural resources and unique ecosystems — is undergoing a dramatic transformation. Driven by climate change, this transformation will challenge livelihoods in the Arctic, will create new economic opportunities and could intensify strategic competition among countries,” the strategy stated.

The strategy’s implementation plan — released about two weeks after the panel discussion in October — reinforced the 11th Airborne Division’s place in the increasingly important region. It called for the Defense Department to “advance the U.S. Army’s

Arctic-capable force within the 11th Airborne Division, the foundation of the Army’s expanding Arctic capability.”

Eifler said: “We are a strategic force on a strategic location made up strategically for that purpose.”

And it is perhaps one of the toughest assignments in the Army.

“It’s the harshest environment on the planet. If something happens in that area of operations or that environment — whether it’s high altitude, high latitude, mountains or the Arctic Circle — you’re going to need a force that can operate, thrive, survive and fight and win in that environment,” he said.

In extreme cold temperatures, phone or radio batteries drain in an instant. Tablet glass cracks. Hydraulics in artillery systems don’t function as planned and removing a glove and exposing a bare hand to do a simple task like zipping up boots can get a soldier quickly in trouble.

“We have a saying in Alaska: ‘It’s different here,’” Eifler said.

“You can make a mistake in the lower 48 and you can get away with it. You can’t do that in Alaska. You can’t do that in the Arctic,” he said.

Establishing the division has meant taking a second look at the Army’s standard cold weather gear.
One basic item that hadn’t been updated in more than a half century were skis.

Command Sgt. Maj. Vern Daley said the division has been working with the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts to update the skis, which has involved a great deal of feedback from the troops. The goal is to field the new skis by this winter.

“What we are trying to do is make sure that our soldiers are equipped and are able to move at the speed of relevance to be able to prosecute that fight. To be able to do that, we have to have increased mobility, and better sustainment,” Daley said.

Douglas Tamilio, Natick’s director, said, “If you ask every soldier up in the Arctic what ski they want, it’s a different ski, so we took all those requirements and blended them together to get what we think is probably going to be the premier ski for the Arctic.”

Mobility is just one of the many complications the Army faces operating in extreme temperatures, he said.

The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, under the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, has led the way helping the division equip its soldiers with the gear they need.

Combat, feeding, shelters, heaters — all those things are different, Tamilio noted.

While the Army has operated out of bases in Alaska since 1867, more recently, the service sent soldiers stationed there to Iraq and Afghanistan during the global war on terror. Some of the cold weather equipment is outdated.

“Frankly, some of the things like heaters probably haven’t changed much since the late ’60s,” Tamilio said.

As for moving foot soldiers in deep snow, the Army in August 2022 awarded BAE Systems a contract to build 110 new Cold

Weather All-Terrain Vehicles to replace the 40-year-old Small Unit Support Vehicles.

The CATV is an unarmored tracked vehicle that can be transported by CH-47 Chinook helicopters, operate in deep snow and perform a variety of missions such as cargo and troop transport, medical evacuation and command and control.
BAE has delivered five of the new vehicles to Fort Wainwright for testing and training, Eifler told Janes on the sidelines of the conference.

Along with the skis, the research center embarked on a program to revamp the protective clothing soldiers wear.

It has already fielded more than 11,000 sets of the Cold Temperature and Arctic Protection System — the updated outer layers that allow soldiers to operate in extreme temperatures, he said.

Soldiers will have a chance to try out the gear in some 18 exercises the division plans to take part in this year. It is coordinating closely with allies that operate in the Arctic, such as Canada, Norway, Sweden and Finland, or in high altitude mountains in South Korea and Northern Japan. One unit recently trained with Indian troops in the Himalayas, Eifler said.

The Arctic Strategy Implementation Plan calls for the Defense Department to “improve the Joint Force’s ability to operate in the Arctic by increasing Arctic readiness through training and exercises in collaboration with allies and partners.”

However, the 11th Airborne has to come up with its own kind of training, Eifler said. The Army normally conducts large-scale exercises in California and Louisiana in the summer months, but the 11th Airborne needs to train in the winter, he added.

“We have to build those Arctic calluses that we need. So, if we have to go in that harsh environment, we’re ready,” he said.

“What we get to do is design our own … combat training rotation in the state of Alaska, in the Arctic conditions so that we can get better and train harder and get more strong and resilient in the process,” he added.

That involves everything from combat care to feeding the troops, Tamilio said.

Where an average person might need 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day, soldiers operating in extreme temperatures need around 7,500, he noted.

Casualty care is also complicated. If it is minus 40 degrees, the odds are a soldier might succumb to hypothermia before the actual injury could result in fatality.

Natick developed a sleeping bag-like system that has pockets to put heating elements — either electronic or the thermo packs that heat up when broken — with a tent that can be set up in under a minute. The medic can get in and work on the soldier without exposing them. It can transfer to a sled for medical evacuation. Natick has built 30 of the systems that will be sent to Alaska for extended evaluations this winter, he said.

Battery life continues to be an issue in extreme cold, and Natick and the division are continuing to ask industry for solutions.

“If you have your cell phone with you and you take it out for two minutes, it will go from 100 percent to zero at the temperatures we’re talking about. So, battery life and keeping the battery warm to us has a huge impact up there,” Eifler said.

One solution is a bag Natick developed that can keep batteries warm for up to 72 hours, he added.

“I’ll tell you one of the biggest, toughest challenges that we have is ‘the coin of the realm,’ which is energy,” he said.

Everything needs fuel, especially heaters, and that creates supply chain issues, he said. And forget solar power when there is little to no sun during the winter, he added.

“We’re always looking for new and innovative ways that we can sustain ourselves with a fuel that’s easy to move and resilient enough to survive in those conditions,” he said.

Communications is another challenge. Military satellites mostly operate in the lower latitudes, while commercial satellite providers such as Starlink and Iridium do provide some coverage up north, Eifler noted.

As for the equipment, the Army tends to give everyone the same equipment, which doesn’t always work well in extreme conditions.

The command has found “the older the equipment is, the better it works. The more [sophisticated] technology you have, the more challenges you have,” Eifler said.

Using a tablet to calculate fires or do planning exposes it to the extreme temperatures, then “it’s gone,” he said. “The ambient air cracks the screen and everything on it.”

Sometimes “technology is the enemy,” he added.

Ultimately, the best resource the Army has to operate in the Arctic and extreme cold weather is the individual soldier, Eifler said.

But it takes a special kind of recruit, he noted. Sorting through candidates to serve at the 11th Airborne is an ongoing challenge.

“We don’t have a problem with getting a lot of desire to come there. So that’s really good,” he said, noting the division has soldiers from Puerto Rico and South Florida who “absolutely love it in Alaska.”

“But we also want to make sure the right people are coming for this mission because it takes a little bit more toughness and grit,” he said.

Topics: Army News

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